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Saturday, May 9, 2015


Author:  Simon R. Green  
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Severn House Publishers Ltd.
   1   The Dark Side of the Road (5/2015hardcover, e-book; 11/2015paperback)
   2   Dead Man Walking (9/2016hardcover, e-book; 9/2017paperback)
   3   Very Important Corpses (9/2016hardcover, e-book)
   4   Death Shall Come (9/1/2017hardcover, e-book)
   5   Into the Thinnest of Air (3/1/2018hardcover, e-book)

This ongoing review post was revised and updated on 8/16/2017 to include a review of Death Shall Come, the fourth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of all of the previous novels.

                    NOVEL 4: Death Shall Come                    

     Ishmael Jones is faced with a dead body and a missing mummy in this highly entertaining, genre-blending mystery.

     Death shall come on swift wings to whoever desecrates this tomb…Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been summoned to remote Cardavan House, home of the world’s largest private collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, for the unveiling of George Cardavan’s latest acquisition: a bone fide Egyptian mummy.

     When a bloodstained body is discovered beside the empty sarcophagus, Ishmael is dismissive of the theory that the mummy’s curse is to blame. Instead he sets out to uncover the human killer responsible. But how can Ishmael explain the strange, shuffling footsteps that creep along the corridors? Who is playing games with them...and why?

     Yet again, Ishmael and Penny find themselves in a dreary old country house in the middle of nowhere. This time it's Cardavan House, the family estate of the Colonel's wife, Chloe. Chloe's grandfather and father have amassed a huge collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, and the Colonel suspects that his father-in-law has resorted to some potentially damaging illegalities and high-level corruption in order to pay for the items, smuggle them out of Egypt, and keep their existence hidden from anyone outside the family. Shockingly, the Colonel asks Ishmael for a personal, off-the-books favor—to pose as an expert in Egyptian artifacts at a weekend family meeting at Cardavan House during which Chloe's father plans to unveil his newest acquisition: a sarcophagus containing the mummy of the very first Cleopatra, a previously unknown ancestor of the well-known Egyptian queen. The Colonel wants Ishmael to sneak into his father-in-law's office and search through his files for incriminating evidence.

     When Ishmael and Penny meet the Cardavan family, they find the usual familial conflicts simmering above and below the surface of staunch English civility. In addition to Chloe and the Colonel (whose full name is finally unveiled: Stuart March), the family group comprises George (Chloe's father and the family's alpha); Marjorie (George's young trophy wife); Nicholas (Chloe's hard-drinking brother); Caroline (Nicholas' dominatrix wife); Bernard (Chloe's dementia-addled grandfather); and Bernard's wife, Susan. The only non-family members of the group are Ishmael, Penny, and Professor Samuel Rose, the Egyptologist hired by George to evaluate his new mummy and the rest of his huge and ever-growing collection.

     Very early in the story, Chloe's brusque, self-absorbed, arrogant father—who has dedicated his life to his beloved collection—is found brutally murdered in a locked room (of course...a locked room mystery!). His beaten, blood-covered body is lying on the floor in front of the now-empty sarcophagus. As you might expect, the murder mystery is complicated by a mummy's curse. The novel's title comes from the mythical (and nonexistent) inscription on King Tut's tomb warning that death will come to defilers of the tomb. Green even names the family at the center of this story "Cardavan" in a nod to Lord Carnarvon, the financier for the Tut excavation. He was one of the first to enter the tomb and was the first person to diesix weeks later from an infected mosquito bite. Immediately, several Cardavan family members invoke the curse and begin looking over their shoulders for supernatural trouble. Ishmael, however, is certain that the murder was committed by an enraged human, but who? And why? And how?

     The remainder of the novel follows Ishmael and Penny as they try to solve George's murder while dealing with a noxious outbreak of bitterness and distrust among Cardavan family members and a stream of additional, murderous crimes. Is there someone else in the house? Who is the murderer? Is the curse real? Who can be trusted?     

     I don't want to go into any more detail about the plot because the reader is entitled to the unspoiled opportunity to watch it play out with all of its twists and turns and goose bumps and shocking revelations. As usual, there is plenty of Green's patented wry, dry repartee and smart-alecky humor. There are also a few dark and emotional interior monologues from Ishmael (set off by Bernard's dementia) about the fact that he will never age, but that Penny will eventually grow old and die and be lost to him. Fans of the series should not miss this book because it contains one more tiny clue to Ishmael's distant past.

     After the publishing date (September 1, 2017), you can click HERE to go to this novel's page and read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Death Shall Come is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.  

    Ishmael Jones—the series hero—is "someone who had learned to walk through the world without making ripples because he couldn't afford to be noticed. Who lived under the radar because he couldn't afford to be found out. A man who drove on the dark side of the road." (The Dark Side of the Road, p. 2) Ishmael is employed to search out secrets, investigate mysteries and shine a light in dark places.

     The series is set in modern-day England—a world that is mostly human and seemingly normal. But Ishmael knows better. After all, he has been hunting down unspeakable monsters since 1963. Back in his early days as a mercenary monster hunter he worked for Black Heir, Great Britain's secret government agency that deals with alien affairs ("Real aliens, that is. Visitors from Beyond, and all that."). For the past fifteen years, he has worked for the Organization under the supervision of the Colonel. Over the years, Ishmael and the Colonel have forged a father-son relationship that becomes both tragic and ironic in book one. Although Ishmael knows that he and the Colonel work for the Organization, he knows absolutely nothing about the Organization, and that's the way he wants it. Ishmael knows only that he gets his missions from the Colonel and that the Colonel protects Ishmael from his many pursuers. Ishmael explains that he deals "with people and things that the world was better off without. Sometimes I killed people. And sometimes I killed things that weren't even a little bit people. And I never felt bad about it once." (The Dark Side of the Road

     If you are a fan of Simon R. Green's fiction, you'll immediately recognize Ishmael as being yet another in Green's string of smart, wry, competent, understated heroesjust like Eddie Drood and John Taylor. Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in the SECRET HISTORIES/EDDIE DROOD series. Click HERE to learn more about Green's NIGHTSIDE series.

                    NOVEL 1:  The Dark Side of the Road                    

     Leave it to Simon R. Green to take a dark-and-stormy-night murder mystery and turn it inside out. The story begins like an Agatha Christie mystery with its isolated country-estate setting, snowstorm-bound cast of characters with secrets, and a serial killer in the midst of it all. Keep reading, though, and you'll soon run into two major paranormal identity twistsone regarding Ishmael and one regarding the murderer. It all adds up to an engrossing tale hallmarked by Green's inimitable sly, dry, and wry humor. Green sticks with the Christie model to the very end, revealing the murderer's identity before all of the surviving guests in the drawing room. Shades of Hercule Poirot!

     The story begins when the Colonel calls Ishmael to invite him to spend the Christmas holiday at his family's old country house, Belcourt Manor, located deep in the heart of rural Cornwall out in the middle of nowhere. The Colonel won't explain his reasons for the invitation except to say that he has a bad feeling about something that is going on at the Manor. Being a loyal employee, Ishmael jumps into his car and drives for hours through the worst snowstorm of the century, arriving at the Manor only to find that the Colonel has disappeared.

     Naturally, the guests at the Manor are a quirky group who appear to be enjoying one another's company. Under that sociable veneer, however, most of the house guests have dark secrets, and some have secret relationships with other guests. Green takes the first few chapters to set the scene and introduce Walter Belcourt, the family patriarch, and his guests: his first and second wives, his business associate, his daughter, his daughter's jilted boyfriend, and the second wife's female friend. Also in residence are a butler and a cook. So…Whodunnit? That's what Ishmael has to find out, but as the bodies pile up and the clues turn out to be overwhelmingly ambiguous, Ishmael sometimes fears that he will be unable to avenge the Colonel. Never fear, though. Green's heroes always pull through in the end.

     In the midst of all of the secrets held by the guests of the Manor, Ishmael has a major enigma in his own personal life. I won't reveal Ishmael's secret here. I'll just say that he suffers from periodic, surreal dreams that may or may not be buried memories or flashbacks to some horrible event in his past. When Ishmael tells his story to the reader (about a quarter of the way into the book), you might say to yourself, "Oh, I see. This must be science fiction," But you'd be wrongjust keep reading for the next genre twist.

     By the end of the story, Ishmael has teamed up with Penny, Walter Belcourt's daughter, who turns out to be an impudent, intrepid, up-for-anything adventurer who takes a liking to Ishmael (and vice versa). Her voice and her attitude remind me of Eddie Drood's girlfriend, Molly Metcalf.

     For me, the first three quarters of the book contain the most interesting and engrossing chapters as Green riffs through his character introductions  and sets up the mystery using the full, entertaining force of Ishmael's cynically amusing point of view. The final chapters, though, descend rapidly and unexpectedly into grisly, gory horror, and the true nature of the murderer seems wrong somehowas if Green just snatched it from a generic list of monsters that he keeps on hand just for that purpose. Nothing in the story prepares the reader for this character, so the ending feels improbable and flawed. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Dark Side of the Road on the book's page by clicking on the cover art.

                    NOVEL 2: Dead Man Walking                    
     “Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones. I am the man in the shadows, that even the shadows are afraid of. The secret agent whose life is the greatest secret of all. And some of the cases I work are trickier than others.” 

     A rogue agent has come in from the cold and wants to spill his secrets. The Organization wants Ishmael to find out if Frank Parker is who he says he is, what he really knows, and why he has emerged from the shadows after all this time. 

     Ishmael heads to Ringstone Lodge in Yorkshire where Parker is being held to find that an atmosphere of fear and suspicion prevails. As he and his fellow residents are menaced by a series of alarming and inexplicable incidents, Ishmael sets out to prove that it’s human trickery rather than any supernatural being behind the seemingly ghostly goings-on. But matters take an unexpected turn when one of their number is brutally murdered, and once again Ishmael must turn detective in order to entrap a twisted killer before they strike again.

     This plot is similar to The Dark Side of the Road in that the story is a murder mystery set in an isolated manor house in which one of the guests/residents is killing the othersone by one. The story begins when Ishmael's new Colonel commands him to take the lead in debriefing a rogue agent who has come back to the Organization. Frank Parker promises to dish the dirt on the Organization's many enemies, including some traitors within its own ranks. Ishmael's task is to ascertain whether the man is truly who he claims to be.

     Porter is being imprisoned in a steel-barred basement cell at Ringstone Lodge, a long-time Organization internment center located in the middle of nowhere. The regular Ringstone staff has been evacuated, leaving just a short list of characters, each with his or her own special role in the plot: 

 > Donald MacKay, a retired Regimental Sergeant Major who has been head of security at Ringstone for three years.

  Alan Baxter and Karl Redd, two antagonistic security guards who openly despise and defy Ishmael at first sight.
  Dr. Alice Hayley and Dr. Robert Doyle, two interrogators who are supposed to get information from Parker. They are extremely hostile to Ishmael and Penny and are decidedly curious about Ishmael's back story
  > Philip Martin, the twenty-something, nerdy computer technician who supervises the interior and exterior surveillance systems.

     Accompanying Ishmael is his new partner (and lover), Penny Belcourt, whose family was destroyed during the events of The Dark Side of the Road. Here, Ishmael explains their relationship: "We loved each other as much as two people can when one of them isn't entirely human." Penny is just as smart, sassy, and fearless as Eddie Drood's Molly Metcalf, and just as entertaining. 

     As soon as Ishmael and Penny arrive, they begin hearing tales of supernatural goings-on at Ringstone Lodge: heavy footsteps in the halls in the middle of the night, flickering lights, interference with the lodge's state-of-the-art security cameras, and flickering images on security computer screens of an unidentifiable man running through the hallways. Outside the Lodge is the previous owner's family graveyard, which contains the grave of an accused witch, so some of the Lodge's inhabitants suspect that her spirit may have stopped in for some spooky visits.

     The plot takes off when someone is found stabbed to death in a securely locked room. Penny and Ishmael have already survived one murder-in-a-mansion bloodbath, so they're pretty sure that they will make it through this one. And so would everyone else, if they'd only follow Ishmael's constant demand that they stay together. But if they did that, there wouldn't be a story, and besides, these characters view Ishmael as a pompous, conceited know-it-all who can't possibly live up to his impossibly exaggerated reputation. So...they begin to go off aloneone by oneand mayhem ensues.

     The best thing about all of Green's novels is his characteristic dry humor, particular when it comes to unveiling the personality traits of his characters. Even if you presented me with the following sentence completely out of context, I'd be able to give it a chuckle and identify Green as its author: "He looked the pizza parlour over as though he'd never set foot in such an establishment before and now, having done so, was convinced he'd been right all along." This revealing and humorous line could have been spoken by any of Green's protagonists, from John Taylor to Eddie Drood to Ishmael Jones. Here is Ishmael's take on the initial impression he makes on the residents of Ringstone Lodge: "A group of people stood waiting to meet us. They all had that look about them: fascinated to meet an actual field agent in the flesh, staring at me like I was some rare species in a zoo and just a bit disappointed I wasn't Daniel Craig."

     In a slender story thread woven through the main plot, Ishmael struggles with nightmares in which his dark inner, original self threatens to overwhelm his human self. He tells Penny, "Sometimes I wonder if I'm just something that dreamed it was a man and loved it. And I am so scared of waking up..." He continues to have a nagging fear: "What if I was not a man? What if I was just a cage for something worse?"

     If you are a reader of mysteries, you know that when authors drop specific details into their plots, those details can be either red herrings or pertinent clues to the solution of the mystery. In chapter two, Green gives us some very specific details, and it's up to you the reader to figure out which are important. If you guess correctly, you'll solve the mystery yourself before Green does his on-the-page reveal, but if you make the wrong choice, you'll have a satisfying surprise in the final chapter. Either way, this novel is an entertaining read with lots of suspense, quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and dry humor. This is a short noveljust 201 pagesso it's a great book to take along on your summer vacation. Also, if you (like me) have forgotten the details of the big reveal in the first book about Ishmael's origin story, Green eventually gets around to a recapitulation of that story about half-way through the book. (That's the problem with reading several books a week, including lots of series in which there is a year between books. It's hard to keep all of the story lines intact in my memory so I'm always grateful when authors reprise the key points from previous books.)

Click HERE to read an excerpt on this novel's page just by clicking on the cover art.

                    NOVEL 3: Very Important Corpses                    

     Ishmael Jones travels to the Scottish Highlands on a mysterious dual mission in this intriguing, genre-blending mystery. 

     The Organisation has dispatched Ishmael and his partner Penny to Coronach House on the shores of Loch Ness where the secretive but highly influential Baphomet Group are holding their annual meeting. The Organisation believes an imposter has infiltrated the Group and they have instructed Ishmael to root him—or her—out. It’s not Ishmael’s only mission. Jennifer Rifkin, the first agent sent by the Organisation, has been found dead in her room, murdered in a horribly gruesome manner. Ishmael must also discover who killed his fellow agent—and why.

     Dismissive of rumours that the legendary "Coronach Creature" is behind Jennifer’s death, Ishmael sets out to expose the human killer in their midst. But he must act fast—before any more Very Important People are killed.

(NOTE: The publisher's blurb comes from Green's British publisher and, therefore, uses British spellings that sometimes are not the same as American spellings (e.g., organisation, rumours).

     Once again, Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt find themselves at in a centuries-old, isolated country mansion surrounded by eccentric and dangerous people, dangerous creatures, and weird mythologies that may or may not be rooted in truth. This time, the Colonel (Ismael's boss at the Organisation) sends him to Coronach House on the shore of the legendary Loch Lomond to replace one of his colleagues, Jennifer Rifkin, who was murdered almost as soon as she arrived at the house. Coronach House has a tragic and mysterious past that may or may not play in to the mysteries that Ishmael has to solve. One part of its unsavory history includes a mysterious entity called the Coronach creature, supposedly a malformed human (or supernatural) child who was drowned in the Loch by his/its family. According to local legend, the creature emerges from the Loch periodically to take revenge on whoever happens to be staying in Coronach House at the time. Adding to the general creepiness, many of the outside guards have seen glimpses of a misshapen human—or humanoid—slipping though the fog and shadows that envelop Coronach House every night.

     Here's the set-up: A mysterious business/financial association called the Baphomet Group is holding a meeting of its twelve members. Each member—called a principal—is a wealthy and influential financial mover and shaker who prefers to work behind the scenes out of public view: "People with power, but no responsibilities and no accountability" who keep their very existence hidden from the world. During their stay at Coronach House, the twelve principals keep their true names a secret and go by the names of the months. The eldest, naturally enough, is December. No one is happy that Ismael has been sent in as the new Head of Security, and everyone hates (but fears) the Organisation. Each principal has his or her own personal staff, which includes an armed body guard, a personal assistant, and an armed chauffeur.

     In addition to the 36 people in the principals' personal entourage, the Major Domo (head servant) has a staff of twenty. Additionally, there are armed guards patrolling the grounds. That is a huge number of people for Ishmael to deal with as he and Penny attempt to take (and keep) control over a situation that keeps getting more and more violent.

     Ishmael's many-pronged mission is to protect the Baphomet Group's principals, solve Jennifer Rifkin's murder (and other crimes that may occur during his stay), and catch the person(s)/creature(s) responsible for the crime(s). Whoever/Whatever murdered Jennifer did it by sucking out her brain through a pair of deep puncture wounds to the back of her neck. The murderer also destroyed everything in her room, even gouging deep lines of claw marks in the walls. When Ishmael arrives, he is told that the current theory is that Jennifer was killed by some sort of animal that somehow got in and out of her room (and the house) without being seen or heard. 

     Just to make things interesting, the Colonel tells Ishmael that one of the principals may already have been kidnapped or murdered and replaced by a double. And one more problem: An investigative reporter may have infiltrated the staff. 

     When Penny asks Ishmael what "Coronach" means, Ismael explains that it is a Scottish lament...a death song. Then Penny asks what Baphomet means, and Ishmael explains that it was a mysterious creature supposedly worshipped by the Knights Templar. Could it still be alive? Will any of this play a part in the plot? Who knows? 

     In addition to the January-through-December principals, several supporting characters play key roles in the story:

> Helen McGregor, the Major Domo, is a highly efficient, in-charge woman who doesn't give up her authority without a struggle. Eventually, she and Ishmael develop a mutual respect for each other's ability to cope with this very difficult and dangerous situation that keeps getting worse and worse by the moment.
> Christopher Baron (pseudonym), a long-time colleague of Ishmael's—an untrustworthy, but highly skilled, assassin and field agent who is sometimes on Ishmael's side, but often not. He is serving as the Major Domo's Head of House Security. Baron's presence leads to several flashback scenes in which he and Ishmael reminisce about their past fieldwork experiences together. Especially interesting is their 1970s security work with the Beachcombers, a group of mad scientists trying to produce a shape-changing super-agent—an experiment that ended very badly for the subjects of the experiments.
> A bevy of "professional escorts" who hang out in a bar room within the house, exchanging gossip and intermittently providing soothing physical release (off the page) for the principals.
     Green keeps the plot twisting and turning by throwing in a number of red herrings, but you won't be able to figure out which are real clues and which are not until the very end, and even then, you won't be sure. 

     Although I enjoyed the story immensely, I feel compelled to point out that Green's plotting is not as tight and plausible as it usually is. I know...I know...nothing about this series is remotely plausible, but when Green allows a murder to occur simply because a group of guards leaves one of the principals completely unprotected by trooping off to supper together—well that, to me, is an improbability that makes absolutely no sense. Green has Ishmael constantly commenting about the guards' hyper-alertness as they brandish their weapons at every opportunity and surround their principals with over-the-top firepower, so when they all desert their duty for dessert...well, no, that just doesn't work for me. Green should have found a better way to put that principal in fatal jeopardy.

     Ishmael recounts his 1963 "human awakening" experience in full detail in this book as he muses about the violent alien "thing" that may reside within him. When his fears seem to come true late in the book, he and Penny have a touching scene in which he begs her to accept and love him—whatever he is. This is one of the most emotional scenes between them in the series so far. Throughout this novel (and the series in general), Penny is Ishmael's feisty sidekick, trusted partner, and cherished lover. Even though she lacks heavy-duty fighting skills, she makes up for it with lots of courage, passion, and intuitive intelligence. Together, they are an unstoppable force.

    If you enjoy Green's wry, dry humor (as I do), you'll enjoy this adventure. Although I was able to predict the identity of the ultimate villain, I was never able to identify the behind-the-scenes villain or figure out the how and why of the various murders because I didn't pick up on the buried (and sometimes unreliable) clues scattered throughout the story. I love it when that happens! Click HERE to go to the novel's page to read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Very Important Corpses is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.  

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